October 17, 2011
An Occupation In Full: Tough Questions For a Growing Movement

There is nothing left on Wall Street. The machines that process and propel the world financial markets are whirring away seven miles west in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. The New York Stock Exchange building is home to little more than a high-functioning Potemkin village. Randolph and Mortimer Duke would laugh at the scene on the floor: a few day traders kicking around the crumbs, and the day’s chosen rubes ringing that infernal bell.

On October 5th, over the course of six unseasonably warm hours, more than ten thousand protesters snaked their way up Broadway, flanked by unsmiling police the entire way, from Zuccotti Park to Foley Square (just a half mile to the north) and back again. By a little after 6 p.m. the sun had passed by Lower Manhattan. Inside and around the park, in and out of the shadows, “occupiers” were mingling with teachers and transit workers and Teamsters while network news reporters piled into their cars and satellite crews bundled up their vans for the ride back uptown. With the afternoon’s tension gone from their faces, the police did their best to direct tired demonstrators to the nearest subway stops.

Then came a voice—then five, ten more in quick succession—from the southeast corner of the park: “We’re going to Wall Street. March on Wall Street!”

The thread had been cut. There was no plan in place for protesters to actually go the two blocks down Broadway for a meeting with Wall Street proper. The entire scene came to a halt, as if the director had yelled “cut!” and the extras were left behind without instruction. In reality, the congregation was… deciding.
 
Not that the cops were going to wait around for the verdict. Commanders immediately directed their charges toward the cobblestone corridor that had, for nearly three weeks, been off limits to everyone from “occupiers” in Guy Fawkes masks to your local bug-eyed wanderer. The officers at the very top of the intersection were unspooling their absurd, orange kettling nets. At Wall Street’s mouth, a phalanx of riot police equipped with Billy clubs was squatted, ready to beat back any attempted incursion. The NYPD’s “White Shirt” commanders barked out orders from the rear. Mere feet away, the protesters were preparing too.
 
“If you’re willing to be arrested, move to the front!” one yelled into the crowd, which was by now swelling at the iconic intersection. Most held their positions, neither charging the line nor retreating. Cries of “pepper spray!”—in addition to actual pepper spray, the perennially effective deterrent—had created some space and so it appeared, when the first group of young men and women began their dash, that they were running through a World War I-esque no man’s land.
 
The first surge of protestors drove a waiting column of barricades back into the police line. The next catapulted itself over the resulting mess of aluminum and flesh like NFL tailbacks trampling their own blockers at the line of scrimmage. For the half-dozen protesters who made it through to Wall Street, what followed was brief and painful. One “White Shirt” could be seen beating his baton down onto a young man like a hammer into a balky nail, each stroke shorter and more frenzied than the last.
 
The whole world was now, in fact, watching. And that changes everything. 

                                                    ***

After three mostly anonymous weeks in an echo chamber of its own construction, Occupy Wall Street had been set loose on the country. Opinions, prescriptions, denunciations, and (at last) affirmations were beginning to fill both mainstream op-ed pages and partisan blogs. Cable news crawls provided the minute-by-minute updates. Pundits and politicians, whether referring sympathetically to the movement as a reasonable expression of "frustration" or slandering it as some kind of fifth column’s plot to pit "Americans against Americans," all lined up to say their piece.

The time had come for choosing sides. For opposition political movements, there’s rarely too much trouble in identifying the enemy. Bonus-hording bankers; the corporate tax code; financial institutions that mix commercial and investment dealings in a bid to become “too big to fail”; the bought politicians that keep the wheels and gears turning under the guise of either “restoration” or “progress”—these are Occupy Wall Street’s foes.
 
But who are its friends?
 
John Lewis, the celebrated Civil Rights leader and current US representative from Georgia’s 5th district, is as good a candidate as any. But when he visited the Occupy Atlanta group to deliver a personal message, the audience refused him the pulpit. After a rather convoluted (and absurd) debate and vote, it was decided that the congressman would have to wait. Lewis, without pride or anger, quietly excused himself.

Solidarity is not given from up on high. It must be earned. Friendship is a commitment forged during the lean times. Lewis turned up just as the news cycle was turning in the group’s favor. In that moment, he was not the Freedom Rider who led the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; not the man who in Selma and Montgomery was beaten like a dog by Alabama’s racist police; not the living legend. Rather, Lewis was simply a representative, opportunistic perhaps, of a government that has for so long rubber-stamped policies that effectively separate working people from the wealth they create. 
 
He is a politician and the Occupy movement is wary of them all, even the ones they like.

                                                   ***

Who can be trusted?

It is the question that plagues every revolution. And make no mistake, despite preaching (and mostly practicing) non-violent resistance, Occupy Wall Street sees itself as revolutionary in nature. After all, one doesn’t spend a month sleeping in a rolled up tarp for a laugh. These are no weekend warriors. They began in Zuccotti Park alone with nothing but a few core principles, a basic Anarchist-based organizing guideline—that’s not an oxymoron; real Anarchy is actually quite organized—and a megaphone. The police quickly confiscated the latter.

Since then, hundreds have come and gone and come back again. Thousands more have visited for an evening, or joined in one march or another, meaning that the first phase has been a remarkable success. Trust is growing. Wall Street—or that park a few blocks up—has been occupied. The protesters have made space. They have created a “situation” which would please Guy Debord, one with demands all its own. But the time has come to make the space bigger. Occupy Wall Street must expand its ranks. It must leave its parks and promenades and enter American life.
 
Accepting and celebrating union support was a start. Labors leaders, perhaps cynically, see the “occupations” as their last best chance to reclaim their place as real players in the national political process, while the rank and file saw, at least on October 5th, that the protesters were not just burnt out college kids and lazy, unemployed street urchins. Rather, they were smart, educated young adults with big debts and little hope of finding jobs commensurate to their talents; middle managers cut out of the game by “streamlining” corporations; decent people who just cannot bear another year with the proverbial ax hanging over their heads. Coached for so long to distrust one another, the two groups found their best selves on common ground.

Like so much else in this country, we find the blessing and the curse baked into the same smoldering pie.

                                                    ***

“Those who lack imagination, cannot imagine what is lacking.”

For all the talk of Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street takes more from the Paris uprising of May, 1968. As such, it would be wise to consider the above warning (originally imparted in the form of Parisian graffiti). The Arab Spring may have inspired thousands of Americans into the streets, but it offered no wise guideline about what to do next. The best lesson from Tahrir is that a social movement should not become preoccupied with one narrow, largely symbolic enemy. It needs imagination.

In Cairo, they bayed for Mubarak’s ouster, all the while embracing the play-acting soldiers who mostly shielded them from the dictator’s vicious police. When Mubarak finally did leave for Sharm al-Sheik, the majority of the demonstrators went home, while “serious” international reporters celebrated like soccer fans with the people in the street.
 
Mubarak has been gone for months now but little has changed. The military, that ran the game from the start, have brought back “emergency rule.” Egypt, like the Prussia described by Friedrich von Schrotter, is “a country with an army, but an army with a country,” and given that, it’s clear the army will not be defeated by a crowd in a square. 
 
For Americans, there is no dictator to kick out of his palace. There is no singular face to put on a placard. Some thoughtful (but misguided) people have expressed regret about this, while others accuse the movement of subscribing to a false equivalency. But Zuccotti is not Tahrir, and it won’t be unless protesters fall into the same simplistic trap. The questions here are more complicated because the Occupy movement has created the space and time for them to be asked in full. The answers are still unknown, but there is finally a coherent group determined to find them.

So let the police and the bankers have Wall Street. There are bigger barriers up ahead.

  1. thedarkfields posted this